Hillary: the 'little woman' as scapegoat

January 17, 1995|By Frank Rich

IF YOU doubt that powerful women still drive American men crazy, try to find any men at Hollywood's new hit adaptation of "Little Women." The audiences are large, but, according to the president of Cinema- Score, a national survey outfit, "Males are JTC not showing up to this movie."

If a woman is going to be strong, she had better be the sexual predator of undying male fantasies, like Demi Moore in "Disclosure," rather than the intellectually strong Jo March, who has the temerity to reject the hunk next door.

But you don't have to go to the movies to see this scenario play out. Just take another look at the great Connie Chung-Kathleen Gingrich dust-up of '95.

The received version of this story has it that the poor, innocent victims were a kindly old mom and her son -- sandbagged and slurred respectively by the unscrupulous media.

The truth is the exact reverse: The wronged parties were Ms. Chung, who was falsely accused of violating journalistic ethics, and Hillary Clinton, who was tarred as a "bitch."

As powerful women, however, they have few defenders. Most journalists beyond CBS have bashed the only female anchor in network news -- despite the fact that a replay of "Eye to Eye" unambiguously reveals that Mrs. Gingrich volunteered her notorious remark with scant coaxing.

And as for the first lady, the forgotten woman of this affair, no one so much as considered giving her an apology, even if only out of minimal respect for her office.

To the contrary, the speaker's mom, having learned no one would gainsay her, was emboldened to call her "a bitch" again in a subsequent TV interview.

This is in keeping with the least covered of post-election stories: the emergence of Mrs. Clinton as the nation's No. 1 scapegoat. Even New York's first lady, Libby Pataki, attacked Mrs. Clinton gratuitously last week -- doesn't she have something better to do with her time? -- and by Thursday night David Letterman's Top Ten list was full of rude suggestions as to how the first lady might improve her image.

Democrats have piled on, too. As the nonpartisan "Hillary Clinton Quarterly" points out, a standard intra-party rationale for the Nov. 8 fiasco is the equation "Hillary = Health Care Reform = Left-Wing Big Government = Crushing Defeat for the Democrats."

Eleanor Clift, the TV talking head long considered the most knee-jerk of Hillary cheerleaders, is now championing Nancy Reagan as a more effective first lady "on substantive issues," in part because Mrs. Reagan's exercise of power took place behind closed doors.

Mrs. Clinton can't win for losing. When she exercises her clout in private, she's Lady Macbeth, or perhaps, as post-inauguration rumors had it, a lamp-throwing lesbian.

If she does so in public, she's a "bitch." In less than three years she has also been the Yuppie Wife From Hell, Florence Nightingale, the ditzy prophet of the Politics of Meaning, the $100,000 con artist, a Superwoman effortlessly fielding her roles as mother and wife on top of health-care duties, and stealth candidate for president in 2000.

Not even Sally Field in "Sybil" had so many personalities. Does Mrs. Clinton? The standard take on these constantly shifting roles -- and the many hairdos that have accompanied them -- is that she simply doesn't know who she is and remakes herself monthly either to find herself or to pander to the voters.

But it's just as plausible that this first lady is a complex mixture of many traits -- some appealing, some not -- and that she has provoked so much hostility because she exercises the full power of her personality, not just political power.

She refuses to censor or pigeonhole herself to fit any stereotyped image, pre- or post-feminist, that might freeze her image for easy mass consumption.

Did Mrs. Clinton make a mess of health-care reform by holding task-force meetings in secret, eschewing compromise and producing an unpassable bill? Yes. But the depth of rage directed against her for this and other transgressions far exceeds the crimes.

You don't have to love Mrs. Clinton, or share her politics, to feel that her demonization tells us much less about who she is than it does about a country that still feels threatened when its little women grow tall.

Frank Rich is a columnist for the New York Times.

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